In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, now at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in a local premiere, playwright Lynn Nottage places us squarely in the center of working-class life — a life I’m guessing that few Center theater-goers have experienced directly. These days we’re awash in books and articles explaining the rage and disaffection of working people who feel themselves sliding into penury and as a result voted for Donald Trump, but these are usually written and read primarily by middle-class people and viewed from an outsider’s perspective. Nottage began her work on Sweat by interviewing residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, the poverty-ravaged steel and textiles town where the play is set. Though the action takes place during the presidency of George W. Bush, you can see the currents that led to Trump’s election.
Nottage begins with a scene in a parole office, where two young offenders are being interviewed in turn by the parole officer. One is black, the other a sullen white kid with Nazi tattoos on his face. It’s 2008, and we won’t know for some time what offense sent them to prison. Then we’re in the year 2000, in a bar where line workers in a steel factory meet to drink, swap information and celebrate birthdays. There are rumors of layoffs, and they sense — without quite admitting it to themselves — that their lives are about to be upended. Chief among this group are militant, angry Tracey, daughter of a German immigrant who takes strong pride in her work, and Cynthia, a black woman striving to advance. Close friends, they are also the mothers of the young men we met in the first act. The bar is run by retired worker Stan, who’s almost always willing to run a tab if you’re broke.
Nottage doesn‘t judge or condescend to her characters. Some drink too much. A bad back leads to opium addiction. And when Cynthia wins a promotion to supervisor, an ugly racism that had never been evident before emerges. We're condemning the racism and perhaps wondering if the women couldn’t have handled their problems better, but we’re also made to consider the sheer nastiness of a management that pursues a divide-and-conquer policy by forcing Cynthia to deliver the devastating news of a lockout to her old friends.
Watching, I kept remembering the many films and plays about working people that came out in England during the 1950s and early ‘60s, beginning with John Osborne’s groundbreaking Look Back in Anger, then giving us Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, A Kind of Loving and A Taste of Honey. There was a second eruption during the 1980s, when Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher was undermining the livelihoods of workers in coal mines, factories and steel mills. I was intrigued to read that Nottage had actually been in Mansfield, England, as an exchange student in 1984, and talked with participants in the miners’ strike there. “Mansfield bled into the work,” she recently told Baz Bamigboye, a reporter for the Daily Mail , adding that it “is in the DNA of the piece.”
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The play is smart, engrossing and troubling, though every now and then it becomes a touch talky. Nottage’s Ruined, which also won a Pulitzer and played at the Denver Center in 2011, was a higher-octane and more dramatically stunning event that involved intense danger, rape and its aftermath, music, redemption and also —like Sweat — characters capable of being as tender as they were sometimes vicious.
There are a lot of reasons to see Sweat, which is directed by incoming associate artistic director Rose Riordan. High among them is the uniformly first-rate acting: Gustavo Marquez as Oscar, a reserved role that explodes unexpectedly; William Oliver Watkins as the calmly powerful parole officer, Evan; Timothy D. Stickney’s fallen Brucie, destroyed by booze and drugs and constantly cadging money; and Leslie Kalarchian as a surprisingly delicate, almost Victorian-seeming Jessie. And then there’s the versatile Sam Gregory, always a pleasure to watch, as low-key, ever-present Stan; Jordan Bellow as Chris, who dreams of a college degree and wants to be reasonable but sometimes finds the struggle too much; and Cycerli Ash, who brings both strength and grace to the role of Cynthia. The blazing stars of the evening, though, are Derek Chariton as Jason and Tara Falk as Tracey. There are times when Chariton’s quivering, almost out-of-control rage at the mere thought of a Latin American’s success is purely terrifying. And you can't turn your attention away for a second from Falk’s Tracey, made mean and tight by hardship.
The production is a triumph for the Denver Center and Riordan, and exactly the kind of work we thirst for in these murky times.
Sweat, presented by the DCPA Theatre Company through May 26, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.